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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


How to act when stopped

Most drivers get a bit nervous when a police vehicle is following them.  That nervousness is not warranted if you are driving properly, but if the cruiser’s rooftop-mounted light bar is activated, nervousness may be an understatement.

A traffic stop by an officer of the law may happen to any motorist on any day.  The purpose of traffic stops is to enforce traffic laws through education and enforcement.  Pullovers are effective in letting drivers know the errors of their ways in real time, right in the midst of the offending act.

The impetus for these stops is not predominantly to write tickets, but to make the roads safer for all drivers.  As such, law officers focus on violations known to threaten the motoring public with injury or death:  driving while impaired, speeding, aggressive driving, failure to wear seat belt, and following too closely.

Why might YOU be stopped?  Likely causes are those infractions listed above, but sporadic emphasis on other transgressions, such as continuous occupation of the left lane without cause, may get an officer’s unwanted attention.  Equipment violations (vehicle height, window tint, lighting, et cetera) may also be brought to your attention.

Your traffic stop may involve contact by city police, county sheriff, or state patrol.  In any of those cases, drivers should expect professional behavior from the police and police should expect courteous and predicable behavior from drivers.

A published goal of the Washington State Patrol is to make every contact as “safe and professional as possible,” treating drivers with the respect that they deserve.

The WSP has a series of “Good to know” videos posted on YouTube, including a recent entry regarding traffic stops.  There, it’s stated that, “There is no such thing as a routine traffic stop.”  The video also reminds us that officers face potential peril each time they approach a vehicle.  Last year alone, over 130 officers were killed nationwide during traffic stops.

Officers are challenged by not knowing who they have stopped; you may know you’re not a criminal, but they do not.  As a result, certain tactics employed for trooper safety may seem standoffish, but they are not wishing to offend you, and ask that you not be.

So, how should you act when stopped?  First and foremost, upon seeing the cruiser’s lights, quickly but safely pull to the right and stop.  If you hear their siren, it’s probably because you didn’t respond to the lights, which may alter the officer’s attitude — none that I know have tolerance for oblivious drivers.

Remain in your vehicle and let the officer come to you.  Officers have told me that when a driver exits the vehicle, it suggests an attempt to flee or fight.  Also, your vehicle offers you safety from potentially distracted passing motorists who may strike someone or something in the vicinity of your stop.

It helps to reassure the officer when you keep your hands in plain sight as he or she approaches; resting them on the steering wheel is the best choice.  Don’t go digging in the glove box for registration and proof of insurance until the officer arrives and requests those items.  Officers realize that most drivers are trying to be helpful, but they don’t know whether those drivers are looking for documents or a gun.

Being stopped aside the roadway is risky for all involved, so it is desired that you don’t extend the stop by arguing with the officer.  If you are ticketed and don’t feel you deserve it, your argument can be brought before a local court.

Overall, according to the WSP video, troopers wish to make stops that are “safe, tactically sound, and treat the public the way they would like to be treated.”  If violators have concerns or issues, they are encouraged to have a conversation with WSP supervisors for resolution.  They openly invite communication with the public.

The WSP, like other agencies, will continue to employ education coupled with enforcement in their quest for driver safety.  The WSP professes that their contacts via traffic stops will be guided by their agency motto:  Service with Humility.  Please afford them a similar consideration.

Readers may contact Bill Love via email at